Council happy with new stadium lease

Apr. 18, 2013 @ 09:44 PM

It looks like it’s smooth sailing ahead with the City Council for a lease extension that will keep the Durham Bulls in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park for at least the next 20 years.

Council members reviewed the proposed deal on Thursday and signaled that they’re largely satisfied with the terms City Manager Tom Bonfield and his staff negotiated with the ball club.

“I think you guys have done a good job in trying to structure this,” Mayor Bill Bell said. “Conceptually, it looks good.”

The questions that came from the council mostly concerned what the city and the Bulls will get out of a planned renovation of the facility that will occur this winter and cost them around $15 million.

Finance Director David Boyd and General Services Director Joel Reitzer explained that the project will first deal with about $6 million in “deferred maintenance” items that the city, as the stadium’s owner, has been putting off.

Among other things, workers will replace and upgrade the stadium’s lighting, which for a number of years now hasn’t been up to the standards of the AAA level of professional baseball the Bulls belong to, Reitzer said.

After that, the agenda’s all about improvements that the Bulls want to make to the 18-year-old facility.

The lease and associated agreements require the city to chip in up to $12 million and the Bulls to provide at least another $2 million for the impending renovation. The city’s share is capped; the Bulls’ is open-ended, meaning the club’s on the line for any last-minute extras or cost overruns.

Bulls General Manager Mike Birling told council members that one of the club’s top priorities is the addition of another food court on top of the stadium bowl, down the right-field line.

Most of the existing concessions are on the stadium concourse, a location that takes fans away from the game while they’re waiting in line for food and drinks.

The arrangement is part of the stadium’s original design and didn’t really change when the stadium’s capacity increased after the Bulls’ switched from playing A-league ball to AAA, Birling said.

The renovation will also expand the right-field picnic area, add a banquet area on the stadium’s third level, reconfigure the outfield stands and add a “more state-of-the-art kitchen” to the park, he said

The Bulls also want to replace the outfield-wall advertising signs with LED models that should add a “wow factor” for fans, Birling said.

The city will have to borrow the $12 million it’s putting into the project, but it has leeway to do that because it’s close to burning the mortgage from the stadium’s early 1990s construction.

Because of the new borrowing, the stadium will still be subsidized with tax dollars, but going forward the city will have to put roughly $200,000 a year less into it, Finance Director David Boyd said.

That’s because the Bulls will take responsibility for the facility’s annual operating costs and also contribute up to $200,000 a year for preventive maintenance, he said.